San Francisco students give historic tours of Chinatown in Minecraft

17 May 2021 Article Banner

Lisa Yu is a senior community organizer at Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC), where she works with youth leaders in the Chinatown Alleyway Tours program. This program trains high school students as tour guides who lead groups of tourists through Chinatown, sharing stories to bring the neighborhood’s 170-year history to life. “Last March, when San Francisco schools closed, we paused the tours and met the youth leaders online to talk about what to do,” Lisa recalled. “They wanted to keep giving tours, but we all knew they had to be virtual.”

Brandon, a high school senior who started volunteering with CCDC in eighth grade, explained, “The alleyway tours were really personal for us. We were trying to create a personalized tour of Chinatown, given by members of the community who share their own meaningful stories, not like the generic city walking tours.” As the students explored different ways to share the tours online, from Google Maps to PowerPoint, one student suggested they use Minecraft. Inspired by in-game graduation ceremonies like the University of California Berkeley’s Twitch stream, they decided to build Chinatown’s historic alleyways in Minecraft.

A re-creation San Francisco's Chinatown in MinecraftPhoto courtesy of the Chinatown Community Development Center

San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest Chinese community in North America. The neighborhood arose in the 1850s as an enclave for Chinese immigrants and families. While the Chinese community faced racial discrimination and repressive legislation across the country, associations founded by Chinatown’s leaders and benevolent groups provided support systems like schools, hotels, community centers, groceries, theaters, and more. Although still a residential neighborhood, Chinatown is now a popular tourist site for San Francisco.

The 22 blocks of Chinatown are connected by a maze of 41 narrow, bustling alleyways. “For example, Ross Alleyway is one of the oldest alleyways in Chinatown, featuring the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory that has been custom-making fortune cookies by hand since 1962,” explained Lisa. “There is 41 Ross, an active community creative space in the historic Ross Alley, a collaboration between CCDC and the Chinese Culture Center.”

In 1991, Reverend Norman Fong created the Adopt-an-Alleyway urban revitalization project in recognition of alleyways as public open space. Seven years later, the Chinatown Alleyway Master Plan was commissioned by San Francisco Public Works to guide the renovation of 31 alleyways in Chinatown. “The Chinatown Alleyway Master Plan plaque is on the floor of Ross Alley with the mascot at the corner, the Monkey King, Sun Wukong, from the Chinese novel Journey to the West.” Chinatown Alleyway Tours grew out of the Adopt-an-Alleyway program as youth leaders developed tours based on interviews, research, and their personal experiences.

Once they decided to try giving tours via Minecraft, several youth leaders, CCDC alumni, and friends set up a Discord channel and started planning. “I’ve been playing Minecraft for seven years,” said Edwin, one of the primary builders of the Chinatown world. “I worked with some alumni of the Alleyway Tours program to lay the groundwork—level terrain, outline the map, build parks and streets. Then others added in details like signs and windows.” The student build team used Google Maps to measure each building and set up the world at a 1:3 scale. “I used computer science principles to program NPCs,” Edwin shared.

“In middle school, we used Minecraft: Education Edition, and honestly, it was the most fun class I had. Integrating Minecraft and education can make kids more interested in history,” said Tiao, another student builder who started playing Minecraft in eighth grade after seeing his favorite YouTubers play. “It’s a new way of learning.”

A Chinese dragon floats in the sky behind a string of dragons in Minecraft.Photo courtesy of the Chinatown Community Development Center

“Because our tours are virtual now, anyone in the world can join,” adds Brandon. “We’ve had people join from all over the country, including a lot of teachers and their classes.”

“Whenever the students run Minecraft tours, the kids on the tour use chat to ask about how the world was built, and what blocks and textures were used,” said Judy Kuang, the youth program manager at CCDC. “Then their parents jump in and ask about the project. They realize that their kids are using a game for education.”

The student build team repurposed in-game items to represent real-world details of the alleyways and added photographs of murals and artwork to share streetscapes that might be temporary in person. “We added festive lanterns for Lunar New Year and decorated for Easter,” said Edwin.

The alleyways of San Francisco's Chinatown at night with lanterns floating in the sky in Minecraft.Photo courtesy of the Chinatown Community Development Center

Brandon doesn’t think giving tours in Minecraft will end after the pandemic. “Our goal would be to bring San Francisco Chinatown to everyone so anyone can explore the neighborhood. Maybe we’ll add mini-games!”

“Or build Japantown,” adds Tiao.

Sign up for Chinatown Alleyway Tours online and meet the youth leaders—note that they’re taking a break from tours in May for testing and final exams. Follow Chinatown Alleyway Tours on Instagram to see more images of their Chinatown build.

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To learn about San Francisco’s Chinatown, check out this informative guide from PBS. CNET has more on the story of the CCDC’s Chinatown build. Read about some of the heroes of Chinatown in this informative article by Reverend Norman Fong.